The ramblings of an Eternal Student of Life
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Saturday, May 6, 2017
History ... Religion ...

My middle-age years were a time when I had become interested in various topics and personalities having to do with science, history, society and religious spirituality. Once I picked up such an interest, I would usually dig in by buying and (eventually) reading a handful of books, and maybe one or two Great Course audio/video lectures from the Teaching Company. When the Internet became widely available in the last few years of the 20th Century, I supplemented my research with web-site searches. I even occasionally found someone else who is also interested in the subject and exchange notes on it.

But after a few years, I usually moved on from a particular subject and took up another topic. One of the topics that I explored for awhile in the late 1990’s regarded James the “brother of Jesus”. I had previously become interested in the “Historical Jesus” movement of the early 1990’s, and had soaked up a fair amount of information on what the scholars knew or were speculating about the life of Jesus of Nazareth, along with the social, cultural and historical background of his home turf, i.e. ancient Palestine in the early Roman Empire. One of the major aims of historical Jesus research is to come up with a portrait of Jesus that is not inspired by any particular religious viewpoint, but instead “lets the chips fall where they may” by using standard historical and sociological research techniques.

(Unfortunately, too much of what was presented to the public as “historical” research on Jesus in the 1990s and 2000s was in fact driven by anti-religious motivation; there was an apparent desire to prove that Jesus had not only failed to perform miracles or rise from the dead, but that his teachings and motivations were not primarily religious or spiritual but were more philosophical or political. These views were hardly any more objective than the standard religious interpretations of Jesus. John Dominic Crossan was a notable axe-grinder, but certainly was not the only one.)

After a while, any historical Jesus junkie will stumbles across the matter of James, who is called the “brother of Jesus” in various Gospel, Epistle and Apocryphal accounts. And James is also noted by Josephus, our primary non-religious historical reference from First Century Palestine / Israel. Hmmm, James . . . that’s my name! I grew up in the Roman Catholic faith, but I heard very little if anything about “James the brother” during my youthful Catholic teachings, and later on in the Catholic readings that I did during my early adulthood (which were mostly about liberal Catholicism and the socially active Church). James was there in the Bible, but if you heard him discussed by a priest, it was simply to say that he was a cousin, not a real brother to “Our Lord”. According to the Vatican website on the Catechism of the Catholic Church

. . . the objection is sometimes raised that the Bible mentions brothers and sisters of Jesus. The Church has always understood these passages as not referring to other children of the Virgin Mary. In fact James and Joseph, “brothers of Jesus”, are the sons of another Mary, a disciple of Christ, whom St. Matthew significantly calls “the other Mary”. They are close relations of Jesus, according to an Old Testament expression.

Nonetheless, in my middle-aged research on James, I became convinced that James is a full brother of Jesus and a child of Mary. This is the view of many if not most Protestant Biblical scholars, as opposed to the Catholic scholars who continue to defend the Church’s positions on Mary’s perpetual virginity.

I felt that the Protestants were able to approach the topic with an open mind, whereas the Catholics had to start with an answer and work to defend it. Even though James is not mentioned as having a very active role during Jesus’ ministry, after Jesus’s death he took up a very important role as the leader of Jesus’s followers in Jerusalem. Jerusalem was (and still is) the center of the Jewish world, and James’ role thus envisioned a Jesus movement that was closely tied in with First Century Judaism and the Jerusalem Temple. Under James, the “church” was still pretty much a Jewish thing.

Of course, the future of Jesus’s followers was not to be a Jewish thing. Paul would put the early church on a trajectory that eventually split its identity from Judaism. The branch of the Jesus movement that James led had died out not too long after James’ martyrdom in 62 or 69 CE. The great Roman-Jewish Wars and the siege of Jerusalem in 70 CE helped put the early Jewish-Christian movement which James led to an end. Paul’s vision for Jesus’ followers was the future of the Church, and also very much the future of the western world for the next two millennia.

As such, James is pretty much a “what might have been” footnote to Christianity. So, after reading a few books on James and what he represented in the early Christian movement, I moved on to other topics.

However, not long ago I decided to take a few hours and have a look back on the whole James question, almost 20 years after I first grew interested in it. And even though I’m a lot older now and my mind ain’t as fast and flexible as it once was, I was pleased in that I was able to ask some new questions about James that hadn’t occurred to me back when I first studied him. Here are some of the new issues that I came up with:

— How did James become a recognized and respected Jewish leader in Jerusalem (the historical sources remember him as such, given the amount of time he spent in the Jerusalem Temple) if he was from Galilee? The Galileans had questionable Jewish linage and were considered outlanders and rural hicks by the Judeans in the south. How did James get credibility with the priestly circles and Sadducees, give that he was a rural nobody before Jesus’s death? And recall that even Jesus wasn’t much more than a blip on the screen of the Jewish Temple establishment when he died . . .

— How did a Jewish-Christian community survive in Jerusalem in the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s, given that Rome / Pilate had executed Jesus for fear of insurrection against Rome? How did Jesus’s followers get an accommodation with Rome such that they weren’t heavily persecuted? Or did James, with his focus on piety and holiness, and his lesser emphasis on preaching apocalypse, represent less of a threat to Rome?

— Why didn’t the Jesus movement go back to Galilee / Capernaum and have its base there, as opposed to Jerusalem? Think about how the Essenes considered Qumran as a “New Jerusalem” — why didn’t the Christians have taken a similar “Temple in exile” strategy based in their home turf of Galilee, instead of having Jerusalem as the early headquarters of the evolving Church, as per Acts?

— Why did James become so pious and ascetic in contrast to Jesus’ “eating and drinking” and going to wedding feasts and generally being very social and accessible? Why is he not remembered so much for apocalyptic preaching and preparation?

— How did James pick up so much priestly “Zadokite” influence, including a piety that was akin to the Essenes? Jesus himself had pitted himself against the Temple Establishment and had rejected Essene purity and asceticism – why did brother James embrace it in the name of his fallen brother?

— It seems as if James had developed himself as a Jewish holy-man, but along a different pathway than Jesus took. Can we speculate that during Jesus’ ministry, James was himself on a spiritual path, but a different one, perhaps with some early Essene / priestly influence, or at least more sympathy for the piety rituals of the Pharisees?

— Perhaps the biggest question about James and his Jerusalem sect would be: WWJD? I.e., what would Jesus want done with his followers, given the circumstances? Well, I don’t think that Jesus thought much about that. Jesus had stayed “on the mission” up to the end; he was sure of the impending coming of the Kingdom, and he no doubt anticipated that his followers would play an important and honored roll once the End of Days was past.

But, just as a hypothetical though – suppose that Jesus were told in his final minutes that he would die without the arrival of the Kingdom, and that the “Days” that were supposed to be ending would not be ending anytime soon? Would he want Paul to take his legacy to the gentiles and establish a new religion throughout the western world? Or would he want what he had said and done over the past three years to remain “in the family”, with the Jews (as James envisioned)?

Obviously we can never answer this question. Perhaps the best indication we might have was in Peter. Peter was something of a “man in the middle”, a fellow Jew who knew that Jesus’s dreams and visions were tied to the soil of the Holy Land, and not to a more cosmopolitan perspective encompassing the Roman Empire, as Paul of Tarsus had. And yet, over time Peter seemed to have come around to the Mediterranean point of view that Paul so forcefully preached. Perhaps he rationalized that the Jews of the diaspora needed to become aware of Jesus and the coming of the Kingdom (perhaps this was a rationale for why God and the angels had not come down from the heavens on that Passover afternoon when Jesus hung on the cross – perhaps God wanted Jesus’ followers to get the other Jews around the Empire ready to join the Kingdom, once it finally did arrive).

But then again, Christian legend has it that Peter died in Rome with Paul, and that like Paul, he may have envisioned Rome as the eventual “New Jerusalem” in keeping with the spirit of the Book of Revelations. Perhaps what Peter and Paul did then was the more logical evolution and use of what Jesus had left behind. And yet, as to leaving the Jewish tradition and the sacred land of Mount Zion and Galilee behind — would Jesus’s heart have let him?

Well, I don’t have immediate answers to these questions. Maybe I’ll do some more pondering of them in the near future, especially since there were one or two books on James that came out after 2000 that seem interesting. But the whole topic is also interesting to me in regard to why these new questions (and arguably deeper questions) did not occur to me the first time around. So, perhaps despite my age, my mind is not yet over the hill. Maybe my older, slower, more forgetful, and yet more experienced brain is still good for something after all !!

◊   posted by Jim G @ 1:50 pm      

  1. Jim, Well, for once I have nothing to disagree with you about; if anything, I’d likely expand some of your ideas (in my rambling way). Most likely not only did Jesus have one brother but probably had a bunch of other siblings, some sisters too. Who is to say that some of the women at the foot of the cross might not have been his sisters, grieving themselves and giving some support to Mary?

    And as to Mary being a “virgin”: PLEASE! The concept of woman as a “virgin” in the early first century was ridiculous among the poor especially. Any man was married and thus any woman had an obligation also to be married; along with the “married obligation” went having children, which then makes me wonder about whether or not it could have been possible for Jesus to have had children. He died at 33, which was “old” in those days for a man to have children; he should have been married and had children much earlier in life, say in his late teens or mid-teens, even.

    Mary being considered a virgin became a big thing in later days when, otherwise, how would the king or ruler be sure who the child of his wife to be might be; any “good woman (and Mary was the BEST of women) had to be a virgin. No DNA in those days.

    I must say I like you questions too. Very thoughtful and “delving” into the topic, I might say.

    One thing I’ve become aware of quite recently is the lack of any REAL education on the part of priests (and thus the ordinary Catholic). I’ve recently had occasion to speak about the early church with a man who studied 10 years in the seminary. (I might say I’d be out of date on this as the man was in the seminary about 40 some years ago EXCEPT for the fact that there is a strong movement in the RC church to return to the 1950s, even at the expense of having a “smaller” church.) Pope Francis seems to have a different idea; but he’s not addressed that topic directly. The priests I’ve heard that presently are being ordained are solidly thinking and believing back in the 1940s and 1950s ideas. They want their “clericalism” back!

    The man I mention above had an education that included nothing re the early church; it might have been non-existent. He did seem to have a knowledge of the influence of Roman civic rituals on the RC church, but that was about it. I was astonished that he knew so little, actually NOTHING about the early church, It dawned on me that it’s no wonder the sermons in any church are so b-o-r-i-n-g!!! and uninformed. Seems the priests are indoctrinated and simply pass on that indoctrination to others.

    After the gentleman I speak about above left the seminary he simply “went his own way” re what he tho’t of a creator, religion, etc., much like a lot of other people who search for a spirituality of some sort.

    One thing, tho, does occur to me: I’m not sure I’m right, but I wonder about this: Did those who lived in the first century (and perhaps in the entire first thousand years of our calendar now) have a very different way of thinking than we do now? Questions we might pose may never have been valid questions for them.

    It occurs to me that the thinking of people who lived two thousand years ago had to have been very different from our thinking these days. In addition they spoke languages that either have changed drastically over the two thousand years or simply are not spoken any more. I was surprised to learn someplace along the line more or less recently (which might have been within the last 20 years or so as time seems to me at this point) that different languages require a kind of different tho’t process. While it made me wonder, I eventually tho’t that likely that is a truth one never much thinks about when contemplating terms in translation. It’s not a simple matter of “translating” from one language to another; it’s a matter of the thinking process that may change and be different from one language to another.

    Thus, given the two thousand year difference from Jesus’ time to now and given the difference in language (the ones no longer spoken or so changed that they might as well be very different) from that of ancient Aramaic and/or the various other languages spoken at the time to present day English, I find myself wondering if ANY of the questions scholars ask these days or that we ourselves might think of (and I think yours are particularly good questions for our thinking today) are anything that would have meaning to the people who lived back in the 30s CE.

    But then again, not being able to know how or what the people in the 30s CE might think, we really have no way of knowing about questions we ask today. And thus, in the light of knowing that these are questions that might have no meaning at all to people who lived in the first century, may I add a couple more such questions:

    I’ve often wondered if the wedding at Cana was not Jesus’ wedding, perhaps to Mary Magdalene? In addition, I once did a study of the Fourth Gospel. (Scholars seem to have doubts about who wrote John’s Gospel and are now calling it the Fourth Gospel these days due to the fact that it seems John likely did not write it and the author is probably unknown.) Perhaps it’s the translation I read, perhaps it’s due to the difference in language translation and/or what words meant in the first to second century and what they mean now.

    That being said, I found myself wondering if the “beloved disciple” who is said to have been at the Last Supper and is noted as the author of the Fourth Gospel, might not be Mary Magdalene herself or even some other female author. I even found some possible evidence one might use for maintaining a female author for the Fourth Gospel.

    Then, I think about Origen who felt obliged in the 2nd century to write a book on the fact that Jesus was NOT a child of a rape of Mary by a Roman soldier. (Thus this “rumor” [was it a fact? We’ll never know] had been around for at least 70 years or so. While it may just have been a rumor that got “translated” thru time, the fact that Joseph wondered should he “keep” Mary as a wife or not would state something really noble about Joseph if Mary had been raped; was that what the author was trying to convey when it was noted that Joseph kept Mary as his wife? And the implications of Jesus as her son, the child of a rape, would make the whole story even much more tragic. (Yet, of course, such ideas can NOT be even broached as a topic within the RC church.)

    But not only in those days would such concepts be so “far out” as to be unthinkable; even these days such concepts would be considered heresy. (And as Elaine Pagels and Karen King agreed between themselves (I paraphrase here): “Let’s keep studying those heresies.”)

    I doubt this makes too much sense as I should rewrite this a few more times; but I’m not going to do that. These questions about the early Church may never be solved, may always be questions. But the questions themselves seem to make the people involved even more interesting and even more noble and worthy of following. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — May 7, 2017 @ 2:54 pm

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